Prof. Torg’s take on Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

If you have a Facebook page, own one of the latest cell phones, blog, or tweet, then you ought to at least check out chapter 13 in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.  In the following quote from the last chapter, a once big-time music executive laments about the state of the business.  Feel free to substitute ART in the place of MUSIC.  Here’s Bennie:

“The problem is,” Bennie went on, “it’s not about sound anymore.  It’s not about music.  It’s about reach.  That’s the bitter pill I had to swallow” (page 312).

Whose taste in art is for sale?

So when Bennie says “reach,” he’s talking Tweets, he’s talking Facebook Friends, and he’s talking hits on somebody’s blog.  The last chapter takes place in the future—and she could just almost be talking about right now—we all have to wonder if a book or album or any kind of art is really good or it’s just being promoted very well.  What is the Tweeter getting paid to say that this new artist is the next Bob Dylan?  What perks or gifts have been sent the book blogger’s way?  I just attended a BEA blogging panel where there was talk of ethics in the blogging world.

It may or may not have occurred to you that a novel can pay-off in various ways:  you can be made to feel as if you get to know the characters like people, the text can make you think, cause you to believe you are getting smarter, or make you bawl your eyes out or want to break stuff.  Another pleasing feature of a text can be the language, the words the writer chooses and the ways that the writer puts the words together in the form of sentences.  Egan’s text has that feature.  There are sentences beyond this one that would make for better examples of word choice but there are some original choices here—prewallet, overhandled, Sow’s Ear—and the clever detail of the guy who drinks flakes of gold.  An expensive habit, especially these days when an ounce of the stuff would cost over $1500.  This quote comes from the first story (notice also that it is a long sentence, not an always easy thing to pull off) when Sasha remembers stealing a wallet from a woman in the restroom while she was on a date.  We’ll also hear about Bennie here and we get to see him in the stories that follow.  He’s worth meeting.  Now here’s Egan’s sentence:

“Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening:  lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticides in his armpits.”

I tore that brown thing out on the side and used it as a bookmark.

This is a novel-in-stories, and I loved the first two.  I moved very logically with Sasha the kleptomaniac to her once boss Bennie in the second story who drinks the gold flakes and picks up his son from a previous marriage.  Most of the characters in the book are connected to the music business.  Egan almost lost me on the third story which takes place on an African Safari.  I felt internally frustrated as I was reading and trying to link each new story to the ones which had come before it.  On page eighty-seven, I wrote in the margins:  “I don’t know what the hell is going on or where I am.”

I gave up on trying to connect the stories and just tried to live in each one as a separate world.  I’d say this reading tactic helped, but really I think what happened is the stories got more interesting.  There were many good stories in a row and then on page two hundred and eight, I knew right where I was.  The stories were puzzling together.  I could see where all the pieces might go.  And then Chapter 12 is a Power-Point slide journal.  I don’t generally go for the story that could be called gimmicky.

I was just at a Writers Conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and most of the table moaned when I held up the book and showed off some of the slides.  One student is doing an MFA graphic novel thesis.  Suddenly, she was more interested in the book, and another guy at the table said, “I’ll never read a story like that.”

Fine, readers have their tastes I guess.  For me, Egan and The Goon Squad had won me over by the time the Power Point came up.  By the fifth slide I was laughing and my wife was wondering what was up.  It’s great the way I was taught by the text how to read it.  I say Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is one you ought to read if you’ve got grown up and thinking tastes in reading.  I do.

Citation Information:

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Anchor Books,    2011. Print.

Drop me a note if you want:

william.torgerson (at)

To Marry or Not? Finding Answers in Suicide Hill

It may or may not be obvious that stories can come from all sorts of places and get written for all sorts of reasons.  Take for example “Suicide Hill.”  It was the first story I ever mentally composed, (as opposed to writing it on paper or typing it on a computer) and I “wrote” it by saying it silently over and over again to myself as I proctored an end-of-course language arts test to middle school students in North Carolina.  The story was partly written out of boredom (what else to do?) but also for a more practical reason:  I had decided I wanted to earn a graduate degree in creative writing, and I needed a story to turn in as a writing sample.

William Torgerson, Bill, Torg, St. John's University, Cherokee McGhee Press

My Mental Setting for Suicide Hill: Crown Hill Cemetery in Winamac, Indiana

Back then–this was around the year 2000–the only other text I had written was a messed-up manuscript that represented one year’s worth of writing where each morning before school I typed up 800 words of whatever I could remember about getting divorced.  It was in fact the very manuscript that clued me in that I needed some help learning to write.  I didn’t really even know what getting help might mean back then, (now it means I had to learn how to read like a writer) but I’d read John Irving somewhere saying something about how Kurt Vonnegut had saved him a lot of time. (Vonnegut, I proudly remind you, is a fellow native of Indiana.)

According to Irving, Vonnegut had been able to teach him something that sped up the process of learning to write.  Perhaps even more importantly, I was beginning to believe that writing was something that could be learned sort of in the same way I’d learned to shoot a basketball:  with some of the right fundamentals, a lot of desire, and an enormous amount of regular practice.

Can you learn to write in the same way you can learn to play ball? Here I am in my younger days.

Next came the question that pops up every year or so for me:  what to write?  Back when I’d earned an MA in English Education, I participated in something The National Writing Project calls the summer institute.  Doing that, I’d prepared a teaching demonstration (think writing teachers writing together) that had emerged from my reading of Stephen King’s On Writing.  I had potential writers survey their life for details looking for subject matter they could bring into a story.  I applied that lesson to my own thinking and what I began to consider was that I was in a relationship that was teetering toward marriage, this even though I’d promised myself to never marry again.  Back then, I was in a relationship great enough that it was challenging my old promise to myself to keep to myself.  In writing “Suicide Hill,” I wanted to write a story that would tell me how to live my life.  It worked, but not in the way that I expected it to.

How Would You Define “Retro” and “Indie”?

My questions for Lori  Hettler, author of The Next Big Book Blog:

I see you say you are interested all things, “retro.”  What do you mean?

I am a product of my generation. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s… my fondest memories include Cabbage Patch Kid dolls (and those god-awful but so cool Garbage Pail Kids stickers!), slinkys, Pogo-balls, French cuffed Z-cavaricci’s , teased out hair, cassette tapes, the Fraggles, Sea Monkeys, and the Rubik’s Cube.  Today’s music cannot touch the stuff that came out of the 80’s – I’m talking about bands like R.E.M., U2, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, New Order, and The Cure.  Movies like The Goonies, Labyrinth, Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me – they are untouchable, they stand the test of time.

Retro according to TNBBC: Stand by Me

I love books that steep themselves in retro-ness – books like High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Totally Killer by Greg Olear, Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis, Banned for Life by D.R. Haney. Reading books like the ones I’ve just named gives me that “home-coming” feeling, you know?

What does the word “indie” mean to you and why is it important?

In the traditional sense, I believe Indie was coined for independent publishers, small press, and the authors who sign with them. Some indie publishers, like Graywolf Press, are non-profit. Most, like Two Dollar Radio, were (and still are) small start-up operations that have created a niche for themselves. A growing number, like Tiny TOE Press, Artistically Declined, and Curbside Splendor, are being brought to life by the authors themselves – authors who, due to personal choice or lack of interest from already existing publishers, decided to stand behind their work and present it to the masses on their own terms. I think, because of this increase of author-turned-publisher, the lines between indie and self published have blurred. Many self published authors are now referring to themselves as indie authors. And in a certain light, I suppose they can be. They are independent of contracts, and restrictions. They own the rights to their work. They can tour and promote as they wish. But I would say that only applies if they created their own company by which to publish their work.

Indie Press: Cherokee McGhee, publisher of William Torgerson's "Love on the Big Screen"

Indie can also be looked at as a way of life. It’s staying true to yourself, and your writing. It’s hanging in for the long haul. It’s not selling out. Indie publishers and authors are extremely important to the literary community. Because they are not caught under the umbrella of larger corporations and conglomerates, they have full control over which books they publish. They push the limits, they challenge their readers, they can afford to take chances on experimental, edgy fiction. They can offer their authors one-on-one attention. They throw wild and crazy events, and they rely heavily on word of mouth – The indie publishers and authors I have worked with are extremely receptive and welcoming of the support the blogging community gives them. Some of the best novels I have ever read were written by indie authors and published by indie publishers.

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What was the impulse to start The Next Best Book Club Blog?

I started The Next Best Book Club blog when I realized that my Goodreads group (of the same name) had gotten too large, and my voice within the group had become too small. I needed a larger space, a space of my own – one that I didn’t have to share – to discuss my love of independent literature. I wanted to be able to showcase and highlight not only the books I read, but also the people behind those books, the authors and publishers. I wanted to introduce the world to what they were missing, to the great stories I felt they were overlooking. The blog and Goodreads group overlap by design, but it’s nice to have something that is just me, just my voice, sometimes.

Lori Hettler The Next Best Book Club

Lori Hettler writes The Next Best Book Club Blog

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